Review: At Wagner's festival, a 'Dutchman' never sails

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Review: At Wagner's festival, a 'Dutchman' never sails
The soprano Asmik Grigorian makes her Bayreuth debut as Senta. With neither ship nor sea, Dmitri Tcherniakov’s new Bayreuth Festival staging recasts the opera as a tale of violent revenge. Enrico Nawrath/Bayreuther Festspiele via The New York Times.

by Joshua Barone

BAYREUTH (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The pilgrims to the Green Hill, who have been making their way to the storied festival Richard Wagner founded here 145 years ago, looked more like cattle on Sunday. The theater’s bucolic grounds had become a network of roped-off, one-way sidewalks and checkpoints.

With stricter pandemic safety measures than many other European opera houses, the Bayreuth Festival’s opening night — a new production of “Der Fliegende Holländer” (“The Flying Dutchman”) — lacked some of its usual glamour. Indeed, the romance ended at the sight of mobile bathrooms outside the theater; the ones inside had been deemed too risky. The audience was limited to 900, less than half the house’s capacity.

Yet the unpleasantness of these restrictions faded as the lights dimmed, the hall resounded with the stormy opening of “Holländer,” and the Bayreuth experience began to work its usual magic.

And what a sound it was: The orchestra, propulsive and spirited from the start, was led by Oksana Lyniv, the first female conductor in the festival’s history. Much has rightly been made of that milestone, however embarrassingly overdue.

Lyniv’s “Holländer” was occasionally a little brash, but it was always both driven by and driving the drama, with sharp attention to detail and pacing — in a work whose repetitive score can easily sag under a less assured baton.

She wasn’t the only newcomer at the festival this summer: Dmitri Tcherniakov, virtually unavoidable at European houses in recent years, was directing his first Bayreuth production. And Asmik Grigorian, a steel-voiced soprano and one of the finest acting talents in opera, was making her debut here as Senta — a performance met with a roaring ovation.

There was polite applause for Grigorian’s colleagues, as well; the audience seemed ready to warmly greet whatever they saw after Bayreuth was canceled last year. But although there were some elements of normalcy on Sunday — Chancellor Angela Merkel was even back in her usual box — the festival was still far from its former self.

The full forces of Bayreuth’s fabled chorus, for example, were not allowed onstage. Instead they were divided: half singing in the theater, complemented by an ensemble of lip-syncing actors, and half broadcast from a separate hall. The effect was at times acoustically disorienting.

As a director, Tcherniakov is often interested in trauma: the ways in which it is overcome, sublimated or succumbed to. Here, that was manifest in the Dutchman’s origin story, recounted in a series of vignettes during the overture.

The Dutchman, in this telling, grew up in a small town — possibly coastal, though there is neither a ship nor sea in sight — with uniform, clean, monochromatic, rather sinister architecture. His single mother had an affair with a married man, who violently broke things off with her. Gossip spread, and she became an outcast, isolated in an already isolating place. So she hanged herself; the boy, unable to help, was left mournfully holding onto her swinging foot.

He leaves his hometown and later returns — like the libretto’s cursed Dutchman, docking his ship every seven years in search of a love that will redeem him. Now an adult, with an imposing build and furrowed brow, he is unrecognizable at a local bar, where he tells his tale to a half-interested crowd. (The baritone John Lundgren’s delivery of the monologue was strained, and misaligned with the menacing force of his demeanor.)

Among the people the Dutchman meets at the bar is Daland — in the libretto a sea captain and the father of the opera’s heroine, Senta, but here a clean-cut, middle-class man. (Indeed, the one who ruined his mother’s life.) The bass Georg Zeppenfeld portrays him with a warm tone and a touch of naïve insouciance.

The cityscape shifts between scenes, its buildings fluidly rearranging into new configurations. At the beginning of Act II, they create a plazalike space for the “Spinning Chorus,” led by Mary, Senta’s nurse (though in Tcherniakov’s staging presented as her mother and played, often silently, by Marina Prudenskaya with weary exasperation).

This scene introduces Grigorian’s Senta, a young woman with Billie Eilish hair and a defiant streak. She sings her Ballad — which recounts the Dutchman legend, with an emphasis on his redemption by a woman who will be faithful to him until death — with dramatic gesticulations and a sense of ironic overstatement. But later, when she is alone onstage and her theme returns, Grigorian delivers the tune with quiet, sincere longing, perhaps seeing in the Dutchman a kindred spirit.

She and the Dutchman meet over an awkward dinner at her house, separated by her parents and seated at opposite ends of the table, which is laid out slowly and fussily. It’s not exactly a meet-cute, but something clicks, and the parents fade to invisibility as Senta and the Dutchman sing what came off on Sunday as a mismatched duet, Grigorian luxuriously lyrical and Lundgren a little thin. (Eric Cutler, who sang the role of Erik, the Dutchman’s rival for Senta’s affections, similarly struggled to rise to her level.)

Act III opens like most any “Holländer” production, with the town’s women bringing the men food — only here they gather to enjoy it together. Off to the side, though, is a group of sullen men whose dark clothing contrasts with the earth tones of the locals. Traditionally, they would be the Dutchman’s ghostly crew, and they provide one strategic use of the broadcast choir. As their lines are played through speakers, the men onstage remain threateningly silent.

They are, it becomes apparent, willing collaborators in the Dutchman’s plot to exact deadly revenge on the town. After Erik confronts Senta about their now-broken promises to each other, a fight breaks out in which the Dutchman coolly shoots someone while the crowd retreats back into the town — which the mysterious men have set on fire.

As smoke fills the space and the Dutchman violently casts Senta aside — just as her father once did to his mother — Mary enters with a shotgun, aims it directly at the Dutchman’s chest and pulls the trigger. It’s a lot of violence in not a lot of time, and it wasn’t easy to follow on opening night.

But one thing was clear. Even though this production, as it had been described in advance press, is focused on the psychology and background of the Dutchman, the redemptive power of Senta was inescapable. Rather than join him in an act of eternal devotion, she takes the gun from her shaking mother and holds her, bringing a sense of calm as the curtain comes down.

So while Tcherniakov might have been most interested in the psyche of an angry and vengeful man, the only character who truly changes — and, indeed, matures — in his staging is Senta. Especially with Grigorian onstage, it’s very much her opera.


Event Information:

'Der Fliegende Holländer'

Through Aug. 20 at the Bayreuth Festival, Germany; Also streaming Tuesday on DG Stage;

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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